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How to spend a weekend in Victoria’s idyllic Yarra Valley

Yarra Valley - Hot Air Balloon
Yarra Valley - Hot Air Balloon

So near and yet so far. Melbourne may be close at hand – a mere hour away – but a short stay in the Yarra Valley offers a seductive retreat from city life

It’s still not dawn – though there’s a shimmer of Tiepolo pink low in the sky – and with a slight tug and a roar of flame, our hot air balloon lifts off the damp ground and floats silently up into the misty morning.

We’re clustered into a sturdy basket, phones at the ready to capture every image, but soon we are just gaping in awe as the valley unfurls beneath us, low hills emerging from shrouds of mist, drifting as the sun rises over fields, paddocks and vineyards.

Kiff Saunders, the founder of Global Ballooning, has been piloting hot air balloons for more than thirty years, but he seems as taken by the magic of it as we are. “I love it. It’s very poetic,” he says.  It’s a mighty early but memorable start to two days exploring food, wine, gin and art in the lovely Yarra Valley.

Off to Re’em

Having helped bundle up the balloon, we head to Re’em at Helen and Joey Estate winery. The winery, established 15 years ago, has recently added 16 stylish boutique hotel rooms and a high-end restaurant.

The three-level, dark grey modernist building sits discreetly in the landscape.  Rooms are suite-sized, colours are low key, a subtle backdrop to the sweeping views – all rooms have balconies or patios – overlooking an ornamental lake and vineyards.

Bathrooms are generous, with freestanding tubs and even a holder for your wine glass for when you’re soaking (essential, I think you’ll agree).  All the luxury prerequisites are on hand: fluffy bathrobes, monogrammed slippers, natural toiletries, Nespresso machine.

The design aesthetic is restrained, but lush indoor plants, a ground-floor pond with koi fish (a symbol of luck and abundance), and commissioned artworks ensure a friendly feel.

After breakfast and a post-flight glass of sparkling wine we explore the estate’s vineyards, a patchwork of autumn hues as the different grape varieties change colour.

“We have five different types of pinot noir grape,’ says Business Manager Stephen Powell “but also merlot, chardonnay, pinot gris, a small amount of cabernet sauvignon and even a row and a half of malbec. We’re all about offering a choice.”

We spot some kangaroos grazing between the vines. “There’s a wedge-tailed eagle nest here and we get plenty of gliders and micro bats and you’ll see falcons too,” says Stephen.  “We’ve set aside 22 acres of forest block for revegetation, mass planting and restoring habit for native animals.” It’s part of a sustainable approach to the property’s future.

 

Wine tasting and artisanal produce

A private room with cascading light fittings and a glimpse of wine barrels is the setting for a wine tasting, complete with antipasto platters loaded with local artisanal produce, which we quickly devour.

The range of wines is diverse, from a crisp NV Demi-Sec Sparkling Rosé, a light Sauvignon Blanc that is more European in flavour, “more herbal, more freshly cut grass than tropical” and the 2020 Wayward Child Hannahanna, a low-intervention blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. And then there’s a “funky” orange wine.

Four Pillars

Another short drive leads to Four Pillars Distillery, known for its prize-winning gins. A masterclass here proves informative and amusing, with our host, Elton Pinkster, quite the raconteur. It’s highly anecdotal – there’s a personal story behind every gin – even the brass stills are personal, named after the founders’ mothers. We sniff traditional botanicals and Australian natives (lemon myrtle, Tasmanian pepperberries) and taste-test a raft of gins, including the overproof Navy Strength, and the famed Bloody Shiraz Gin.

But you could just order a top-notch G+T and enjoy the welcoming ambiance.

Art and about

Wine-tasting over, a short, winding drive past gum trees and poplars, autumn pin oaks and more vineyards takes us to TarraWarra Museum of Art.

The prestigious gallery, gifted to Australia by philanthropists the late Eva Besen and Marc Besen, along with a large part of their exceptional private art collection, is housed in a handsome building with curved wall of rammed earth, which is a foil for changing contemporary exhibitions and events.

Tarrawarra, a Woiwurrung word for this area, roughly translated as “slow moving water”, seems apt for the bucolic scene of undulating hills, lakes rimmed by weeping willows and hazy blue ranges.

Dinner at Re’em

A quick post-gin power nap and we’re up for dinner at Re’em. The restaurant, flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows by day, is just as lovely at night with its honey-hued timbers and soft-glow wall sconces.

The winery’s namesake founders, Helen and Joey Zeng, have worked with Korean-born head chef Abe Yang and culinary consultant Mark Ebbles to weave aspects of their Chinese heritage into the menu, and complement the estate’s new world wines.

The menu fuses contemporary Australian style, Chinese cuisine and Korean concepts, all using exceptional seasonal local and regional produce.

A super-flaky spring onion pastry is a moreish starter.  Poached and grilled octopus with endive is followed by slivers of roast duck with cucumber, a nod to Peking Duck.  Smoked and chargrilled cauliflower scattered with puffed rice is multi-layered in flavour, while crispy eggplant cubes are coated in spicy doubanjiang, a  fermented bean paste with chilli.

Dinner is accompanied by more Re’em wines, notably a bold 2022 Syrah.

And then it’s off to our cloud-like beds to dream about drifting in our hot air balloon and wake to magpies carolling in the valley.  So near and yet so far.

 

The writer was a guest of Re’em Yarra Valley, Global Ballooning, Four Pillars and TarraWarra Museum of Art.

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